Alec Baldwin ‘Rust’ prosecutors slammed for missteps
Actor Alec Baldwin leaves his home as he faces involuntary manslaughter charges in the fatal shooting of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of the film ‘Rust’ January 31, 2023 in New York.
David Dee Delgado | Reuters
It’s been a little over a month since New Mexico authorities charged Alec Baldwin with manslaughter for fatally shooting a crew member on the set of the film Rust, and already prosecutors have come under fire and scrutiny.
First of all, the question arises as to whether the chief prosecutor is even entitled to hear the case. The state constitution prohibits a member of one branch of government from exercising power in another branch. Andrea Reeb, the special prosecutor, also serves as the Republican legislature. Baldwin’s attorneys filed a motion on February 7 to have Reeb removed from the case.
The Reeb and New Mexico prosecutors denied that disqualification motion, calling the defense’s argument a “misunderstanding” and saying it rests “on a novel theory that has no support in the statutes or jurisprudence of New Mexico,” according to those filing Court documents Monday.
“Accepting the defendant’s theory would require the court to enact new legislation that would have nationwide implications and be based on nothing more than creative, unsupported arguments,” prosecutors wrote in the court filings.
Legal experts have also criticized Reeb for overcharging Baldwin based on a law that wasn’t in effect at the time of the fatal shooting. She relented and downgraded the charges, which could result in a shorter prison sentence for Baldwin if convicted.
Lawyers also found inflammatory press statements and media appearances by prosecutors strange, as prosecutors are usually advised to save their comments for the courtroom.
“From the beginning, there were some unusual facts surrounding the prosecution’s prosecution,” said John Day, a Santa Fe-based attorney who has practiced law in New Mexico since 1996.
The charges stem from the October 2021 shooting of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins while filming independent film Rust. Baldwin, who also starred in The Departed and Beetlejuice, held the gun, which was loaded with live ammunition.
Baldwin, who is also a producer of Rust, and the film’s gunsmith at the time, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, were both charged in January by New Mexico First Circuit Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies with two separate counts of involuntary manslaughter. By law, a jury can only convict her on one of those charges, each of which carries a maximum possible sentence of 18 months in prison.
David Halls, the film’s first assistant director, signed an agreement to plead charges of negligent use of a deadly weapon and receive a suspended sentence and six months’ probation.
Baldwin and Gutierrez-Reed are scheduled to appear virtually for a status hearing on Thursday.
The Special Prosecutor
Carmack-Altwies appointed Reeb as a special prosecutor in August. Reeb was previously the ninth Judicial District Attorney, but retired a year ago shortly after she launched her legislative campaign. She won the race in November but stayed with the “Rust” case.
Reeb’s dual roles as legislator and prosecutor caused a stir in the local legal community. George Heidke, a former attorney with the First Judicial District Attorney’s Office, told CNBC it was the first time in his 25 years as a New Mexico attorney that he had seen a sitting legislature double as a prosecutor.
Baldwin’s attorneys argue that Reeb should be removed from the case. “A prosecutor who also serves as a legislature could be pressured to make prosecutorial decisions that serve her legislative interests,” Baldwin’s attorneys wrote in a filing. Baldwin is an outspoken supporter of Democratic and progressive issues, making him a target for Reeb’s Republican peers.
The prosecutor’s office responded to that argument on Monday, saying such claims “are purely hypothetical and show which limb the defendant must step on to allege some sort of ‘interference or interference’.”
There are other complications too.
An aerial view of the film set at Bonanza Creek Ranch where Hollywood actor Alec Baldwin fatally shot cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and injured a director while firing a prop cannon on the film set of the film ‘Rust’ in Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA. in this frame from the October 21, 2021 television footage. The footage was captured on October 21, 2021.
KOB TV NEWS | Reuters
“I think everyone can agree that she’s unduly placed in two different branches of government at once,” Lisa Torraco, the New Mexico attorney representing Halls, told CNBC. “There’s a good reason for that: I’m donating to her campaign as a legislator, and now she’s the special prosecutor on my case.”
In September, Torraco donated $250 to Reeb’s campaign, believing that if Reeb won the legislature race, she would automatically withdraw from the Rust case. That didn’t happen.
“If I had known that, I probably wouldn’t have given her any money,” Torraco said.
In addition to Torraco, Carmack-Altwies, a registered Democrat, and Dennis Maez, the Halls private investigator, also contributed to Reeb’s campaign.
Torraco said there was no connection between her small campaign donation and Halls’ pleading. But according to Santa Fe attorney Day, “Looks matter.”
“When you donate money to legislators, you have to understand that people will have access to it and they’re going to be like, ‘What’s going on?'” he said. “That’s exactly why you don’t want a legislature who also doubles as a prosecutor.”
Heather Brewer, the prosecutor’s spokeswoman specially hired for the Rust case, confirmed Torraco’s donation. She added that Reeb’s “integrity could never be compromised by a $250 donation — or a donation of any size.
Gutierrez-Reed’s attorneys co-signed Baldwin’s motion to disqualify Reeb. The prosecutor’s office declined to comment on the application before submitting its response.
“A mistake in the first year of law school”
Aside from Reeb’s role in the legislature, local attorneys found it odd that Carmack-Altwies should even appoint a special prosecutor. In the past, when prosecutors did not have the resources to handle a case, they would turn to the Attorney General for help.
Instead, Carmack-Altwies demanded $635,000 from the New Mexico Treasury Committee and claimed that her office needed an additional attorney, a media liaison and other personnel to deal specifically with the “Rust” case, one said Writing that you on 13 30.
When asked by a member of the CFO if she had contacted the attorney general, Carmack-Altwies said she had not “specifically addressed this case,” according to the transcript of a hearing regarding her funding request. Reeb is the better option, Carmack-Altwies said, because she has “over 25 years of experience and this will be her only case for the next 12 to 18 months, which is intended.”
The state awarded the Attorney’s Office $317,750, about half of the original request.
Torraco said the charges Baldwin and Gutierrez-Reed face are among the lowest-level crimes in New Mexico.
“And they’re asking the Legislature for hundreds of thousands of dollars to prosecute them? It’s just absurd,” Torraco said. “They track fourth-degree crimes every day…why all the hype?”
The legal risk Baldwin faced was much higher until last month, when his attorneys challenged another prosecutor’s decision.
When Reeb first filed criminal charges, she included a so-called firearms enhancement lawsuit, which carries a possible five-year prison sentence. Baldwin’s attorneys filed a motion on February 10 to remove this amendment because it became law seven months after the fatal shooting and violated the legal concept known as “ex post facto.”
It was a “first-year law school mistake,” Day said. “As a prosecutor, it’s your duty to make sure you’re prosecuting the right law. And it’s embarrassing when that happens because it shows they don’t pay attention to details.”
Reeb reminded Baldwin’s attorneys of their legislative obligations in a Feb. 12 email after they objected to the amendment. She’s been “busy in session all week,” she wrote, and is now only able to take a closer look at the specifics of the weapons expansion.
Reeb soon after admitted that she misapplied the correction and dropped it from the case.
The case has received significant media attention, which has continued due to press communications from Baldwin and the prosecution. Baldwin gave an interview to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in December 2021. Carmack-Altwies and Reeb have both appeared on CNN and Fox News.
In addition, Brewer, the spokesperson specifically hired for the Rust case, has made several heated statements about Baldwin and his attorneys on behalf of the prosecution.
Camerawoman Halyna Hutchins can be seen in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters on October 23, 2021.
Nursing Studios | via Reuters
Following the Feb. 10 motion to reduce firearms enhancements, Brewer told CNBC that the prosecutor’s office was intent on holding anyone, “even celebrities with outlandish attorneys,” accountable under the law. Almost two weeks later, when Reeb dropped the amendment, Brewer said in a statement that the charges were dropped “to avoid further contentious distractions by Mr. Baldwin and his attorneys.”
“The priority of the prosecution is to ensure justice, not to ensure billable hours for metropolitan attorneys,” Brewer added.
Brewer has also implied that Baldwin’s attempts to remove Reeb from the case are aimed at diverting focus from Baldwin’s alleged criminal conduct. “Mr. Baldwin and his attorneys can use any tactics they wish to distract from the fact that Halyna Hutchins died on the ‘Rust’ film set as a result of gross negligence and a reckless disregard for safety,” Brewer said in a public statement.
The American Bar Association advises attorneys against making public statements that could harm a jury in a criminal trial, especially when it involves the “character” or “reputation” of the defendant.
“Prosecutors have to walk a very fine line between what they can say publicly,” said Day, the local attorney. “You don’t want to be accused up front of poisoning the jury pool. And that could certainly be an issue here.”